Shadow Operations is an anthology of scenarios for Spire:The City Must Fall, the roleplaying game of secrets and lies, trust and betrayal, violence and subversion, conspiracy and consequences, and of committing black deeds for a good cause. It is set in a mile-high tower city, known as the ‘Spire’, in the land of the Destra, the Drow, which two centuries ago the Aelfir—or ‘High Elves’—invaded and subjugated the Dark Elves. The Drow have long since been forced to serve the High Elves from their homes in the city’s lower levels and allowed only to worship one facet Damnou, the moon goddess, instead of the three they once did. However, not all of the Drow have resigned themselves to their reduced and subjugated status and joined ‘The Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress’, or simply, the Ministry. Its members venerate the dark side of the moon, the goddess of poisons and lies, shadows and secrets, her worship outlawed on pain of death, and they are sworn to destroy and subvert the dominion of the Aelfir over the Drow and the Spire. Published by Rowan, Rook, and Decard Ltd., Spire: The City Must Fall inverts traditional fantasy, making the traditional enemy in fantasy—the Drow—into the victim, but not necessarily the hero.
Shadow Operations addresses an issue inherent to Spire: The City Must Fall. The roleplaying game does not do one-shots. Instead, it is designed for campaign play, which will take the Player Characters, as members of the Ministry, up and down the Spire from the flickers of revolution to the fall of the High Elf regime. What though, if the Game Master wanted to run a one-shot at a convention or as a taster for her gaming group prior to running the roleplaying game proper? This is where Shadow Operations comes to the fore. It is an anthology of short, standalone adventures, the only connection between them being that the Ministry and thus the Player Characters will want to get involved in them. They are all designed to be played in a single three-to-four-hour session, so are suitable as convention scenarios, and they are also formatted to be accessible and easy to prepare. Even so, their low preparation time and their short running length does not preclude the Game Master from including them in her campaign. In fact, the anthology is worth having simply to have a set of accessible, low preparation scenarios to hand.
The simplicity and the low preparation time starts in the introduction to Shadow Operations. Despite having a total of eleven scenarios, the anthology includes just the one set of stats for the NPCs that appear in all eleven scenarios. Or rather it provides stats for archetypes, such as the Fool, the Vizier, the Queen, the Monster, and more, which will appear in most, if not all, of the scenarios. All the Game Master has to do is apply the backgrounds for the versions of these archetypes which appear in each scenario. Which means that the Game Master only has to refer to the one set of stats which learning the specifics of each NPC. Plus, if the Game Master portrays each NPC as written, the players are unlikely to notice the lack of difference in stats from one scenario to the next. Then each of the scenarios is organised in the same fashion. This includes Mission Parameters, Recommended Classes, an Introduction, Non-Playing Characters (NPCs), Suggested Scenes, Locations, Props, Twist, and Reward. ‘Suggested Scenes ‘ are exactly that, scenes that will help push the scenario’s plot involved and get the Player Characters involved. ‘Props’ details other objects and minor NPCs that the Player Characters might encounter as part of the scenario, and they can either be visible where everyone can see and make use of them in terms of the narrative, or hidden, in which case the Player Characters will need to investigate to reveal them. The ‘Twist’ simply the plot twist. This will be revealed during the scenario and in general, make the Player Characters’ lives that much more complicated. Lastly, the ‘Reward’ is what the Player Characters can expect to gain from successfully, even partially successfully, completing the scenario. Most of the scenarios award bonds, or connections, between the surviving NPCs and Player Characters. The majority of the scenarios are no more than four pages long—and that includes a full-page illustration which prefaces each scenario.
The scenarios themselves include assassinations, uncovering mysteries, protection jobs, preventing conflicts, breaking into and out of jail, locating objects, and more. Many, if not all, begin en media res, with the Player Characters already in the plot at the start of the scenario, with the players being asked how they got there—typically through the means of bribes, false papers, threats of violence, actual violence, and so on. So for example, in Grant Howitt’s ‘Life and Soul’, the Player Characters have to get into a gangster’s birthday party and assassinate him in such a way that the message is clear—do not sell weapons to every buyer, and the players are expected to explain how they gained admittance. In ‘The Last Train’ by Nathan Blades, the Player Characters are tasked with finding the last train still operating on Spire’s otherwise defunct public transport network. Finding it and ensuring it still worked would strengthen an alliance for the Ministry. In Christopher Taylor’s ‘A Shotgun Wedding’, the Player Chaarcters not only have to infiltrate the wedding held at the Church of the Gun, which means a fusillade of gunfire and bullets from start to finish, but prevent anyone from disrupting or stopping it. There are plenty of factions who do not want the ceremony to go ahead. ‘Powderkeg’ is well named. By J.P. Bradley, it sends the Player Characters into the North Docks where the feud between two taverns has escalated to the point where a turf war is about to break out. This includes jousting, but done without horses, of course!
Jason Pitre’s ‘The Show Must Go On’ takes to the Player Characters to the theatre where they have to ensure that performance of a controversial blood opera goes ahead, since prior performances have actually sparked revolution, whilst in ‘Jailbreak’ by Basheer Ghouse, the Player Characters have to break into the Hive, the city’s greatest prison, to free a rebel war hero. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a monster who might be a danger to the Ministry, let alone the authorities. ‘How to Steal a Body’ by Pauline Chan is another break in scenario. The Player Characters must steal a corpse from a necropolis morgue, a task made the more difficult by the presence of ghosts and having to get it across the city, plus a time limit. The body must not yet have suffered decomposition! In Christine Beard’s ‘Rime and Reason’ is another prison break in, this time into the literally cold storage facility of Amaranth, to get a key anti-establishment figure back out before word spreads of his incarceration, whilst in ‘House of Leaving’ by Sharang Biswas the Player Characters are charged with finding a missing historical researcher who might have uncovered something which threatens to undermine the accepted wisdom of the accepted faith in the Spire. Just how damaging could it be? ‘The Moon Beneath’ by Jabari Weathers continues the religious strand of scenarios with Player Characters trying to prevent an important cleric brought over to support the Ministry from slipping into corruption, whilst in Pam Punzalan’s ‘Feral Saints’—the longest scenario in the anthology—they must find a reborn saint, a Hallow, capable of healing the sick and feeding the poor from falling into the wrong hands.
Rounding out Shadow Operations is a short section on ‘Running One-Shots’. This is the Game master used to running a longer campaign which Spire: The City Must Fall is intended for. The main advice is to be upfront everything and sign-post much of the obvious elements within a scenario. It recommends doing this on index cards where the players can see them and refer to them in play., Overall good advice, if obviously short.
Physically, Shadow Operations is well presented. Everything is neatly organised and easy to reference, done in a succinct style for start to finish. Overall, this is an excellent set of scenarios, designed not only with strong plot and exciting situations and dilemmas in mind, but also ease of both use and preparation. For the Spire: The City Must Fall Game Master, Shadow Operations is an very useful source of scenarios ready to run a convention or add to a campaign.